Niccolò Machiavelli

From Citizendium
(Redirected from Niccolo Machiavelli)
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This article is developing and not approved.
Main Article
Related Articles  [?]
Bibliography  [?]
External Links  [?]
Citable Version  [?]
Works [?]
This editable Main Article is under development and subject to a disclaimer.

Niccolò Machiavelli (3 May, 1469-21 June, 1527) was an Italian political theorist and historian most well known for his work The Prince. Machiavelli's name has been used for centuries to describe the use or approval of unscrupulous political action, despite the fact that he was well respected as an honorable man, who was the victim of corruption, political deceit and violence throughout his political career in Florence. His concept of civic virtue became a central element of republicanism, which strongly influenced the development of European and American political thought and made his the first modern political thinker. However he is best known for his book The Prince, which made his name a byword for deceit, despotism and political manipulation.


His father was a Florentine lawyer of moderate means, who came from an old and noble family. He supervised the superb humanistic education the boy received in the classics, literature, philosophy, and law.

From the age of 20-29 he worked in Rome, employed in the banking business. In 1498 Machiavelli was elected to the Florentine chancery ("civil service," in modern terms), as secretary and second chancellor. The city deliberately gave preference for top positions to well-educated humanists, even more than experience or political connections. He was the staff aide to the Ten of War, the committee responsible for Florence's foreign and diplomatic relations. He acted as secretary to its ambassadors and drafted detailed reports on foreign affairs. He served until 1512, when the Spanish overthrew the Republic.

He married Marietta Corsini in 1501, who bore him six children, and suffered his infidelities with patience; she outlived him by a quarter of a century.

Machiavelli devoted himself with single-minded intensity to the grueling and poorly paid service of the Republic. In 1507 he added the role of chancellor of the Nove di Milizia (Nine of the Militia), a magistracy he fought to create because Florence needed a citizen army. He argued that putting every citizen in arms was much better than using mercenary troops which, he said, were largely responsible for the military weakness of most Italian states. He did create and train a citizen army, but it did poorly in battle in 1512.

Florentine diplomacy

Italy was a scene of intense political conflict involving four dominant city-states (Florence, Milan, Venice, and Naples), along with the Papacy, France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire.

When Machiavelli was growing up Florence was under the control of Lorenzo de' Medici. Italy was invaded in 1494 by Charles VIII of France, who forced the Medici family to flee. A republic was established but it immediately came under the dictatorship of religious fanatic Girolamo Savonarola. The people turned against the monk and executed him in 1498.

Machiavelli was a trusted advisor to the head of the republic, Piero Soderini, who sent him on numerous diplomatic missions. Although he never had decisive authority, Machiavelli's missions often proved to be of considerable delicacy and importance. They included visits to several courts. In 1500 he spent six months at the court of Louis XII of France, to find out the terms on which the king would help Florence fight its war against the rebellious subject-city of Pisa. Florence depended on its powerful ally to maintain its independence against powerful foes, but France thought Florence was a poorly governed, small weak state.[1]

He spent some four months at the court of Cesare Borgia(1475-1507), the aggressive young Spanish duke who kept seizing territories across Italy and demanded an alliance with Florence. The duke went out of his way to expound his policies and the ambitions underlying them and Machiavelli was greatly impressed. The duke, he reported, is "superhuman in his courage", as well as being a man of grand designs, who "thinks himself capable of attaining anything he wants". Moreover, his actions are no less striking than his words, for he "controls everything by himself", governs "with extreme secrecy", and decides and executes his plans with devastating suddenness. Machiavelli saw that Borgia was no mere upstart but someone who "must now be regarded as a new power in Italy." Borgia was the most ruthless prince in Italy and became the model for The Prince.[2]

At Rome, in 1503, he kept an eye on the election of a new pope (Julius II); and at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian in 1507 he discussed the terms of a payment which the Emperor had demanded from Florence. Borgia, Machiavelli noted in The Prince ch 7, put excessive confidence in his own "fortune" (luck), was outmaneuvered by Pope Julius II, and expelled from Italy. Machiavelli, who strongly disliked the political power of the Church, suggests Borgia should have destroyed the papacy in order to stay in power.[3] Most historians agree he was very hostile to organized Christianity and profoundly anti-Christian because it made men humble, unmanly, and feeble. Christianity, he concluded:

"Has glorified more humble and contemplative men rather than men of action. It also places the highest good in humility, lowliness, and contempt of human things: the [Roman pagan philosophy] places it in the greatness of soul, the strength of body, and all the other things which make men very brave."[4] However, there is a dissent that suggests he really sought to reform the Church.[5]

Machiavelli was an unusually keen observer. In writing his books during retirement he incorporated verbatim into the Discourses and especially The Prince, the evaluations, and even the epigrams, that he prepared as a working diplomat.

When the Spanish took over in 1512, reinstalled the Medicis and ended the republican experiment, Machiavelli was seen was a dangerous opposition leader. He was dismissed from his post, tortured and released from imprisonment shortly afterwards. He then retired from public life to his modest family property for the next six years in an effort to provide for his wife and children.


By 1518 Machiavelli was giving public lectures of his written work, particularly the Discourses on the first ten books of Titus Livius and The Art of War. Only after his death were his great books published: The Discourses (in 1531) and The Prince (1532). In the last period of his life he received an annual grant from the Pope to write his history of Florence and to improve the defenses of the city. However, in 1527 the army of the Holy Roman Empire sacked Rome and the Pope was taken prisoner. At the same time the Papal government of Florence was overthrown and once again became a Republic. Although known as a committed Republican, he found it hard to gain back the favour of the Republicans because of his active collaboration with the last government.

Shortly after the coup Machiavelli, disappointed in not being able to play a more active role in the political life of the city, died and left his family in poverty.

The Discourses

The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius is Machiavelli's fullest discussion on his views on the practice of politics and government, and on the theories that should guide that practice. It was written in the same period as his more well known work, The Prince (1513-1519 approx.) The latter is a brief handbook on for the use of rulers, the former is an extended commentary on the first ten of thirty five books that remain of Livy's History of Rome, making him an important classical scholar in addition to his contributions to political philosophy.

Military strategy

The Art of War is the first major work on modern military thought, and the only major book that appeared before Machiavelli's death.[6]. In seven volumes it examines military strategy and the relationship between war and politics.

Italy could not be freed by hiring soldiers because:

"Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous. And if a prince holds on to his state by means of mercenary armies, he will never be stable or secure; for they are disunited, ambitious, without discipline, disloyal; they are brave among friends; among enemies they are cowards; they have no fear of God, they keep no faith with men; and your downfall is deferred only so long as the attack is deferred; and in peace you are plundered by them, in war by your enemies. The reason for this is that they have no other love nor other motive to keep them in the field than a meager wage, which is not enough to make them want to die for you. They love being your soldiers when you are not making war, but when war comes they either flee or desert.[7]

Allies were not much better, for, "the arms of another man either slide off your back, weigh you down, or tie you up." [8]

The Prince

The Middle Ages saw many books of advice for princes, all of which explained that to be successful the prince had to lead a virtuous life. Machiavelli explained that in the real world it was just the opposite. The virtuous got trampled and the vicious won out, especially if they covered their tracks. "Hence it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity."[9]

As for personal integrity:

"Every one admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep faith, and to live with integrity and not with craft. Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft, and in the end have overcome those who have relied on their word....But it is necessary to know well how to disguise this characteristic....Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them."[10]

Machiavelli uses "virtù" to refer to the range of personal qualities, such as ruthlessness and the flexibility to rapidly respond to changing circumstances regardless of past promises that the prince will need to keep in power and achieve great results. However, this "virtù" has nothing in common with moral virtue.

The The Prince advocated desperate measures for a desperate situation; Machiavelli's ridiculed half-measures and his dramatic statements and antithesis combined to produce bold and startling generalizations. Politics, he argued, is an art that is independent of morality and religion in its necessary methods. He has often been charged with cynicism for trying to discover permanently valid rules for political behavior based on observation of how men do in fact behave rather than on moral evaluation of how they ought to behave. That is, he advocated "realism" rather than "idealism" as a research technique in political science.

Machiavelli discovered the laws of politics by observing diplomacy firsthand and studying history --from what he called his "long experience of modern affairs and continuous study of the ancient world." However, scholars have concluded that he was not actually empirical; he formed conclusions first then sought out examples in history.

At the end The Prince appeals urgently for strong leadership to create a powerful native state and free Italy from foreign domination. To free Italy required ruthless action, he argued.

Impact of The Prince

The practical influence of his advice on actual politicians was minimal; it was first translated into English only in 1640, after a century. Few politicians needed to read a manual on how to manipulate people; usually it was the critic of a politician who complained he acted in Machiavellian fashion.

Machiavelli did influence Italian nationalists during the Risorgimento (unification movement) of the 19th century and under Fascism. They tended to misread him as a proponent of the centralized Italian state; rather, his patriotism was devoted to the city-state rather than the nation.

Machiavelli was not thoroughly consistent. Some contradictions include the a despairing view of the nature of man coupled with a fervent belief in the ability of a leader possessed of virtù to liberate Italy from foreign domination; this with the backing of the people, despite former evidences of the people's corruptibility.

History of Florence

The History of Florence (1925) displayer's dramatic power as the patriotic reader is swept along from the origins of Italian medieval civilization to the threshold of the French invasions at the end of the 15th century. He is harshly critical of the negative role of the Catholic Church --that is, the papacy.

The major themes in History of Florence are the necessity of basing strong government on ultimate consent, and the inevitable corruption of the state if it tolerates political factions. As a scholar Machiavelli relied heavily on the details as related by earlier chroniclers, but he shaped and combined his material with the purpose of discovering the true causes of historical events as revealed by the psychology of individual persons and the conflicting interests of classes; he used history to provide lessons which he thought remained permanently valid. He was one of the first historians to ignore the role of divine intervention in shaping history, a mark of his commitment to Humanism.

Contributions to Political Philosophy

Machiavelli was in many respects not an innovator. His largest political work seeks to bring back a rebirth of the Ancient Roman Republic; its values, virtues and principles the ultimate guiding authority of his political vision. Machiavelli is essentially a restorer of something old and forgotten. The republicanism he focused on, especially the theme of civic virtue, became one of the dominant political themes of the modern world, and was a central part of the foundation of American political values.

Machiavelli studied the way people lived and aimed to inform leaders how they should rule and even how they themselves should live. To an extent he admits that the old tradition was true - men are obliged to live virtuously as according to Aristotle's Virtue Ethics principle. However, he denies that living virtuously necessarily leads to happiness. Machiavelli viewed misery as one of the vices that enables a prince to rule [11] Machiavelli states boldly in The Prince, The answer is, of course, that it would be best to be both loved and feared. But since the two rarely come together, anyone compelled to choose will find greater security in being feared than in being loved. [12] In much of Machiavelli's work, it seems that the ruler must adopt unsavory policies for the sake of the continuance of his regime.

Hans Baron was the most influential scholar to study Machiavelli. Najemy (1996) examines Baron's ambivalent portrayal, arguing that Baron tended to see Machiavelli simultaneously as the cynical debunker and the faithful heir of civic humanism. By the mid-1950s, Baron had come to consider civic humanism and Florentine republicanism as early chapters of a much longer history of European political liberty, a story in which Machiavelli and his generation played a crucial role. This conclusion led Baron to modify his earlier negative view of Machiavelli. He tried to bring the Florentine theorist under the umbrella of civic humanism by underscoring the radical differences between The Prince and the Discourses and thus revealing the fundamentally republican character of the Discourses. However, Baron's inability to come to terms with Machiavelli's harsh criticism of early 15th-century commentators such as Leonardo Bruni ultimately prevented him from fully reconciling Machiavelli with civic humanism.

Pocock (1981) traces the Machiavellian belief in and emphasis upon Greco-Roman ideals of unspecialized civic virtue and liberty from 15th-century Florence through 17th-century England and Scotland to 18th-century America. Thinkers who shared these ideals tended to believe that the function of property was to maintain an individual's independence as a precondition of his virtue. Consequently, in the last two times and places mentioned above, they were disposed to attack the new commercial and financial regime that was beginning to develop. However, Paul Rahe (1992) takes issue with Pocock on the origins and argues Machiavelli's republicanism was not rooted in antiquity but was is entirely novel and modern.

Realist or evil?

For four centuries scholars have debated whether Machiavelli was the theorist of evil, or just being realistic. The Prince, made the word "Machiavellian" a byword for deceit, despotism and political manipulation. Some historians argue Machiavelli had a secret (or very subtle) message that explains away the ugly implications of the plain text, saying that Machiavelli really favored virtue after all and was just trying to trick princes into policies that would lead to their overthrow, not their triumph.[13]

Leo Strauss, the American neo-conservative, denounces him as a "teacher of evil," because he counsels the princes to avoid the values of justice, mercy, temperance, wisdom, and love of their people in preference to the use of cruelty, violence, fear, and deception.[14] Italian anti-fascist philosopher Benedetto Croce (1925) concludes Machiavelli is simply a "realist" or "pragmatist" who accurately states that moral values in reality do not greatly affect the decisions that political leaders make.[15] German philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1946) held that Machiavelli simply adopts the stance of a political scientist—-a Galileo of politics--in distinguishing between the "facts" of political life and the "values" of moral judgment.[16]

Thoughts on the State

Machiavelli was not a political philosopher in the ordinary sense. He did not try either to define the State or to justify its existence. His views about the State are implied as matter of course when he describes how a ruler may retain or acquire control, how he is liable to lose it, which qualities are necessary for a republic to remain strong, or how precarious a Republic’s liberty can be at times. Medieval thinkers had taken the political authority of any prince or king in the community of Christendom to be necessarily limited – by the Emperor (In the case of the Holy Roman Empire), by the power of the Roman Catholic Church in spiritual matters and by the power of natural law (Universal moral principles) that determine the boundaries of justice. Machiavelli did not challenge this long held traditional position. He ignored it, writing as a matter of fact that the state had absolute authority. He thought that the value of religion lies in its contribution to social order and the rules of morality must be dispensed with if security required it.

Machiavelli further differed from medieval thinkers in taking for granted that the power of the state is a single whole and can be centrally controlled, irrespective of whether the state is a monarchy or a republic. He preferred a republic because he preferred liberty. However, he believed that in order for the liberty of republicanism to function, it needed a citizenry who were independent and courageous (Virtuous). Machiavelli believed these qualities were rare and existed hardly anywhere in the Europe of his day since the Romans.

Further reading

See the more detailed guide on the Bibliography subpage

  • Bondanella, Peter, and Mark Musa, eds. The Portable Machiavelli (1979)
  • Burd, L. A., "Florence (II): Machiavelli" in Cambridge Modern History (1902), vol. I, ch. vi. pp 190-218 online edition
  • de Grazia, Sebastian. Machiavelli in Hell (1989), highly favorable intellectual biography; won the Pulitzer Prize excerpt and text search
  • Jensen, De Lamar, ed. Machiavelli: Cynic, Patriot, or Political Scientist? (1960) essays by scholars online edition
  • Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince, ed. by Peter Bondanella (1998) 101pp online edition
  • Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince, (1908 edition translated by W. K. Marriott) Gutenberg edition
  • Skinner, Quentin. Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction (2000) online edition
  • Viroli, Maurizio. Niccolo's Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli (2000) excerpt and text search
  • Viroli, Maurizio. Machiavelli (1998) 252pponline edition


  1. Skinner, Machiavelli (2000) pp 8-9
  2. Skinner, Machiavelli (2000) p. 11
  3. See Scott and Sullivan (1994).
  4. Discourses book 2 chapter 2, online
  5. For the minority view see Sebastian de Grazia, Machiavelli in Hell (1989) page 115 online
  6. Christopher Lynch, in Introduction to Art of War (2003) p. xiii
  7. The Prince ch 12. Florence indeed had a bad experience but most historians feel that in general the mercenary system usually worked effectively. Skinner, Machiavelli (2000) p 36.
  8. The Prince ch 13
  9. The Prince ch. 15
  10. The Prince ch. 18
  11. Leo Strauss, Joseph Cropsey, History of Political Philosophy (Chicago, 1987) p. 300
  12. Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, p. 60
  13. John Langton and Mary G. Deitz, "Machiavelli's Paradox: Trapping or Teaching the Prince" The American Political Science Review, Vol. 81, No. 4 (Dec., 1987), pp. 1277-1288 at JSTOR
  14. Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli (1957), p 9 online
  15. Benedetto Croce, My Philosophy (1949), p. 142 online
  16. Ernst Cassirer, The Myth of the State, (1946) p.136, online